About the same time that I posted The Anabaptist Option > The Benedict Option, Simon Fry wrote a great piece, When Culture Takes Precedence Over Evangelism. In this essay he examines something that I have observed first hand, namely that it sometimes seems like preserving and protecting conservative Anabaptist culture is more important than fulfilling the Great Commission. In general here I am not talking about the Amish who absolutely have no interest in evangelism outside of their own community. I am speaking here more of Mennonites, Beachy Amish, other conservative groups that are more integrated (at least in their vocational life) with the rest of the church and the community at large and seem eager to try to reach the lost, but often without much success. Simon writes:
Anabaptists tend to have smaller groups that know each other well and have a close “brotherhood”. This closeness is often noted by outsiders and looked on with envious admiration. But often it is our close brotherhood, much like an exclusive social club, that keeps out the very ones that we should be bringing in. Is it possible to evangelize without losing that closeness and even our culture (the customs of a particular nation, people, or group) that we guard so zealously? And if it is not possible, which is of greater importance –culture and close brotherhood, or reaching the lost?
That is a pretty tough question and there is not an easy answer. Many religious folk in America would say the answer is obvious, of course reaching the lost is more important! The problem with that assumption is that what many religious people are "reaching the lost" with is so watered down that it doesn't even qualify as Christianity.
To compound the difficulty of the question, as someone who irregularly attends a very conservative Mennonite church, is that I think there is much that is praiseworthy in what they practice. In principle I think that they are more right on their ecclesiastical and fellowship practices than not. The problem is that for people new to Christianity as well as to people who have been Christians for a while in a different setting is that for all of the positives of conservative Anabaptism there is also a sense of being "all or nothing". You are either on board with every practice and position or you are relegated to being a perpetual visitor or guest. A classic and rather personally raw issue is the Lord's Supper. The blessing and privilege of the Lord's Table is one that is extended to all Christians and commanded of them. Yet it is often held hostage to manmade rules and culture that lumps believers with different practices in some areas with unbelievers and those caught up in unrepentant sin. I have experienced this first hand and based on Simon's post and his previous posts so have a lot of other people. Near the end of his post he writes a good summary:
Churches that allow differences in personality, temperament, social status, and dress style will have a church with a greater potential of growing. Think about it, if a doctor, a farmer, a trucker, and a redneck all attend church together, (no this is not leading into a redneck joke) that is four different types of people that could be reached by evangelism by these individuals. If we all look alike and only allow certain types of people to be accepted, we are very limited in our evangelism.
When a visitor sees a variety of dress styles, they will be more likely to feel they will fit in somewhere than if there is only one accepted dress style. When only those who feel comfortable in one particular style are accepted, new additions are very limited.
If a the church has both women who wear head coverings and women who don’t, new converts feel welcomed. Don’t chase away the women who God has not yet convicted to wear head coverings. Perhaps He has other things that He deems to be of greater importance that He wishes to work on in their lives first. We cannot put limits on God. Preach the Word faithfully and allow Him to work at His own pace. His timing is always better than ours! Perhaps He waits because there are some others He wishes to bring into the church that would never come if they were the only one who did not wear a head covering. If we truly believe that God can convict someone, than why don’t we act like it? Forcing people to do something by rules enforced by using communion as a hammer never changes anyone’s heart. Only God can change someone’s deepest heart beliefs.
I would never tell conservative Anabaptists that they should jettison their distinctive teaching in order to placate the world. I simply am asking if they have given as much thought as perhaps they should to how they can be more fully accepting into complete fellowship people who might not share every doctrine and practice that conservative Anabaptists hold dear. If congregations would make room for people who are not where everyone else is without holding the Lord's Supper hostage, something intentional rather than merely by default, I think you would see a lot of these conservative Anabaptist churches reaching more of the lost, seeing growth in their ranks from something other than baptizing their kids or poaching from other conservative Anabaptists and perhaps even learning some challenging ideas to shake them up. It can be very easy to get into a routine that never asks the hard questions and it is just as easy for that routine to go from years to decades to whole generations of people who have never been seriously challenged to grow or to reassess their culture and traditions. People are searching for churches that have solid convictions but they aren't looking for a 20 page document telling them what they have to start doing to be actually welcomed in. For example, the Pilgrim Mennonite Conference, a very conservative Anabaptist group that has a lot going for it, has a document that details their beliefs on the web. There are 7 pages of doctrinal statements on the typical subjects one finds in a confession of faith. There are also around 40 pages dealing with how one should live, what to wear, how to call ministers, using tobacco, listening to the radio, driving cars, etc. So you would not be wrong to wonder why core Christian doctrines on matters of grace and salvation and the nature of God get less than 20% of the pages devoted to rules and regulations.
The comment section of Simon's post is over 40 comments and growing. I have a lot of respect for Simon for being as interactive as he is with those who comment. Many of the comments are very good and add a lot to the discussion. If you are interested in these sorts of questions, questions that appear in Reformed churches or any other high commitment denomination or faction, give Simon's post a look.